As the end of their five-year contracts loomed, indentured Indians carefully hoarded their hard-won savings, some having finally switched to the more profitable free-market labour system to the delight of authorities. Others permanently abandoned their assigned plantations also giving up any intention of returning to India, while several unexpectedly found love.
Following a visit to the Wales plantation in July 1841, Circuit Stipendiary Magistrate William Wolseley announced, “One of the Coolies of this estate has been married to a black woman by the Presbyterian minister of the parish, which is the only instance in the colony of a similar union legally solemnized.” In March 1841, the labourers were transferred from the sold Vreed-en-Hoop plantation “of their own free will and consent” to Wales, another owned by the Scotsman John Gladstone. They were reported “upon the whole (to) have been working pretty steadily ever since; there has been but little sickness among them, and the only death that of an old man about 60 years of age, of a disease with which he was afflicted before he came to the colony.”
The 49 bonded-men comprised a third of the Wales work-force cultivating 244 acres of sugar cane and were accompanied by just two women and three children. “About 7 or 8 of them are working for the same wages as the colony labourers, the others prefer continuing to receive allowances of food, clothing, etc. agreeably to their indentures, either plan is left to their own option,” Wolseley said.
As Wolseley compiled the official journal of his 120-mile four-day-tour of the colony’s many estates, the courageous former house servant Narrain refused to labour in the fields as contracted and accompanied by his older friend Puckeraw chose to walk away from Wales and their indentured pacts. “On being informed he would forfeit his rights to a free passage hack to Calcutta, at the expiration of his contract of service, by quitting the estate, (Narrain) said he was satisfied to provide himself a passage, but that he would not live any longer on the estate. He was then informed he could go if he thought proper but was strongly urged by the Magistrate to remain.”
They would join absentees like Ali Bacchus from Highbury and Ramjaun from Waterloo, whose counterpart Retoo returned but was sentenced to “four days’ solitary confinement in Her Majesty’s Gaol, for absenting himself ten days from the estate without any just or reasonable cause.” A trickle of others followed suit over the next months.
“The absentees reported, from Plantation Wales, are men who appear not to have been contented; and being sure of higher wages than by indenture, have sought employment elsewhere. The removal from Mr. Gladstone’s estate, though with their own consent, seems to have unsettled their minds,” Governor Henry Light complained to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Stanley. Made the 14th Earl of Derby, Edward Smith-Stanley would go on to become a three-time Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the longest-serving leader of the Conservative Party.
Commenting on his stop at Plantation Bellevue, Magistrate Wolseley said, “With the exception of one case, apparently of consumption, there was no Coolie whom I could decidedly call ill; there were three or four with cuts and bruises, two or three with rheumatism, and about the same number with no perceptible ailment whatever. I was happy to learn that no death had taken place among them for the last two years, with the exception of an infant: they are stated to cohabit with the Negro women, but no instance of procreation has ensued.”
Of the 58 Indians including two women, “20 to 30 are effective field-workers; about 13 of these from their own choice receive wages at the same rate as the colony labourers, the others prefer continuing upon the terms of their indentures; they seem to have acquired a desire to make money and to save it: two or three have deposited their earnings in the manager’s hands to the amount of 300 dollars, and several are known to have money hoarded in their houses, upon which a watchman is always placed during the time they are at work in the field, ” Wolseley revealed.
“Their provision grounds are equally as well attended to as those of the other labourers; the manager thinks it doubtful whether the young men will be disposed to return to Calcutta at the termination of their indentures and mentioned as a known fact that one or more of them had been making inquiry respecting some of the saleable lands in the neighbourhood, but no purchase has been made.”
At Plantation Vriedestein, Wolseley “saw the Coolies, 22 in number, all looking cheerful and well, and working, as I was informed, to the manager’s satisfaction; they had been offered the same wages as other labourers but prefer continuing on the terms of their indentures.”
Earlier in June, the Magistrate had undertaken a similar inspection of estates in Berbice and along the East Coast of Demerara. At Plantation Waterloo, “there are 40 Hill Coolies, with whom I was happy to renew my acquaintance after a long absence, and whom I found in good health, though I am sorry to say still in the same state of spiritual ignorance as when I last saw them. They certainly have saved money, and their bodily health has in no way suffered” but “when they return to India, what will be said of their five years’ residence in this Christian country?”
Citing “their propensity to drinking spirituous liquors” Wolseley was uncertain “whether it would not be a disadvantage to themselves to substitute money-wages in lieu of those allowances, as is the case in Demerara, where (some of) the Coolies, by their own desire, have been placed precisely on the same footing as the other labourers. They are entitled by their indentures to two dollars and a-half per month, and on an average earn half a dollar per week for extra work…They all declare it to be their intention to return to Calcutta as soon as their term of service expires.” On the open market the men could earn from four to five times their preset indentured rate, but it meant losing free passage back to India and any chance of being reunited with their families.
The Highbury “Coolies were still working steadily, though it did not appear from the pay-book that they had earned more than 60 dollars for extra labour in the last month; they were receiving their usual allowances of rice, peas, oil, butter, fish, etc. as at Waterloo; but I was informed by the attorney, who had the day before obligingly offered to meet me on the estate, that he had written to the proprietors in England on the subject of placing the Coolies, in regard to wages, precisely on the same footing as other labourers, and he requested that 1 would question them as to their willingness to be paid in money, according to the amount of labour performed, in lieu of receiving weekly rations, and two dollars and a half per month as hitherto”
Wolseley revealed, “I accordingly went to their houses and put the question to several of them, taking pains that they should fully understand that the change was suggested for their advantage, but that they were quite at liberty to continue the present terms if they preferred doing so; no interpreter was necessary to convey their answers; a negative shake of the head from one and all was the immediate result, and from what the interpreter told me I think they are quite satisfied with their present allowances. In point of general appearance nothing can be more satisfactory, and the manager speaks so favourably of them as to admit that half the estate would have been abandoned by this time had the Coolies not been on it: the general opinion is, that they will return to Calcutta when their indentures expire, with the exception of one married family, nine in number, of whom two boys attend upon the manager; this family, he thinks, will remain at Highbury.”
“The Coolies now at Highbury consist of 93 men, 7 women, 7 boys, and 3 girls. In the first year after arrival there were 17 deaths, in the last twelve months but 1. The men who have not Coolie wives now almost generally cohabit -with the negro women; 5 male Coolie children have been born of whom one was stillborn; a negro woman on the adjoining estate had a child by one of the Coolies, but it died the ninth day of lock-jaw: here, as at Waterloo, they are completely in a state of spiritual darkness.”
ID refers to Highbury’s “70 of 93 Coolies” who “went to town” at New Amsterdam “stating that the manager had reduced their daily allowance of rum. The Sheriff explained to them that they were only entitled to the one glass; and giving them a measure as a guide for the future, they left town perfectly satisfied.”